After decades of denying the facility’s existence, five former insiders speak outArea 51. It’s the most famous military institution in the world that doesn’t officially exist. If it did, it would be found about 100 miles outside Las Vegas in Nevada’s high desert, tucked between an Air Force base and an abandoned nuclear testing ground.
Then again, maybe not– the U.S. government refuses to say. You can’t drive anywhere close to it, and until recently, the airspace overhead was restricted–all the way to outer space. Any mention of Area 51 gets redacted from official documents, even those that have been declassified for decades.
It has become the holy grail for conspiracy theorists, with UFOlogists positing that the Pentagon reverse engineers flying saucers and keeps extraterrestrial beings stored in freezers. Urban legend has it that Area 51 is connected by underground tunnels and trains to other secret facilities around the country. In 2001, Katie Couric told Today Show audiences that 7 percent of Americans doubt the moon landing happened–that it was staged in the Nevada desert. Millions of X-Files fans believe the truth may be “out there,” but more likely it’s concealed inside Area 51’s Strangelove-esque hangars–buildings that, though confirmed by Google Earth, the government refuses to acknowledge.
“We couldn’t have told you any of this a year ago,” Slater says. “Now we can’t tell it to you fast enough.” That is because in 2007, the CIA began declassifying the 50-year-old OXCART program. Today, there’s a scramble for eyewitnesses to fill in the information gaps. Only a few of the original players are left. Two more of them join me and the Slaters for lunch: Barnes, formerly an Area 51 special-projects engineer, with his wife, Doris; and Martin, one of those overseeing the OXCART’s specially mixed jet fuel (regular fuel explodes at extreme height, temperature and speed), with his wife, Mary. Because the men were sworn to secrecy for so many decades, their wives still get a kick out of hearing the secret tales….
So, what of those urban legends–the UFOs studied in secret, the underground tunnels connecting clandestine facilities? For decades, the men at Area 51 thought they’d take their secrets to the grave. At the height of the Cold War, they cultivated anonymity while pursuing some of the country’s most covert projects. Conspiracy theories were left to popular imagination. But in talking with Collins, Lovick, Slater, Barnes and Martin, it is clear that much of the folklore was spun from threads of fact.
As for the myths of reverse engineering of flying saucers, Barnes offers some insight: “We did reverse engineer a lot of foreign technology, including the Soviet MiG fighter jet out at the Area”–even though the MiG wasn’t shaped like a flying saucer. As for the underground-tunnel talk, that, too, was born of truth. Barnes worked on a nuclear-rocket program called Project NERVA, inside underground chambers at Jackass Flats, in Area 51’s backyard. “Three test-cell facilities were connected by railroad, but everything else was underground,” he says.
And the quintessential Area 51 conspiracy–that the Pentagon keeps captured alien spacecraft there, which they fly around in restricted airspace? Turns out that one’s pretty easy to debunk. The shape of OXCART was unprece-dented, with its wide, disk-like fuselage designed to carry vast quantities of fuel. Commercial pilots cruising over Nevada at dusk would look up and see the bottom of OXCART whiz by at 2,000-plus mph. The aircraft’s tita-nium body, moving as fast as a bullet, would reflect the sun’s rays in a way that could make anyone think, UFO.
In all, 2,850 OXCART test flights were flown out of Area 51 while Slater was in charge. “That’s a lot of UFO sightings!” Slater adds. Commercial pilots would report them to the FAA, and “when they’d land in California, they’d be met by FBI agents who’d make them sign nondisclosure forms.” But not everyone kept quiet, hence the birth of Area 51’s UFO lore. The sightings incited uproar in Nevada and the surrounding areas and forced the Air Force to open Project BLUE BOOK to log each claim.
Since only a few Air Force officials were cleared for OXCART (even though it was a joint CIA/USAF project), many UFO sightings raised internal military alarms. Some generals believed the Russians might be sending stealth craft over American skies to incite paranoia and create widespread panic of alien invasion. Today, BLUE BOOK findings are housed in 37 cubic feet of case files at the National Archives–74,000 pages of reports. A keyword search brings up no mention of the top-secret OXCART or Area 51.
Project BLUE BOOK was shut down in 1969–more than a year after OXCART was retired. But what continues at America’s most clandestine military facility could take another 40 years to disclose.
In another forty(?) years or so we might hear about the flying triangles.